The delay since my last post is due to the fact that I was preparing for, and sorting through the results of, my appointments the other week with the Royal Ontario Museum and the Kelsey Museum of Archeology to see the Egyptian nalbinding in their collections.
As I discussed in an earlier post, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Ontario has eleven Coptic socks in its collection. Eight of the 11 socks are primarily whole. The remaining three are fragments, but of sufficient size and construction to indicate that they were actually socks. Five are ostensibly dated to 200-641 CE. The other six to the 4th-5th century CE. None of them have been carbon dated. Not much information was retained as to their find locations. Where noted, they appear to be from the Faiyum.
On Monday, July 8th, I was granted a study block in their workrooms to examine the socks. The number of patches was quite interesting. 910.108.137 tends to photograph as a muddy brown, but in person is a beautiful deep reddish purple.
The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Michigan also has six fragments their collection that I have not previously introduced you to on this blog. Click here to access their online collections. These fragments were all found in the excavations at Karanis, which is located at the Northern edge of the Faiyum basin. Five of the fragments (by inventory number) are the cross-knit variant of nalbinding. One is blanket stitch. On July 10th, I had the opportunity to study them.
Careful examination of fragments can at times be much more revealing than at first glance. Besides the increases on the toes combined with evidence of the heel flap telling you for which foot a sock was made, this collection also has evidence of a fringed sock and another one with stitch-patterning. I will be going into the details in my presentation currently scheduled for October: “Fringed and patterned: decorative elements in Romano-Coptic nalbound socks.”
Last seen in Egypt during the 1913-14 excavations of Antinoë, the other three socks pictured appear to have made their way to various English institutions. However, where is the 4th?
The original image was taken by John de Monins Johnson during the 1913-14 excavation of Antinoë for the Graeco-Roman branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund. The glass negative of which is now housed in the Griffith Institute. Their online catalog, http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/johnson/jo10-13.html, shows the image rotated 180 degrees with the missing sock at the bottom. An excellent overview of Johnson’s role in documenting the excavations, is available here in Elisabeth O’Connell’s article “John de Monins Johnson’s 1913/14 Egypt Exploration Fund expedition to Antinoupolis (Antinoë).” Fig. 104 shows the socks, but there are also many images of other items excavated at that time as well as information regarding several other socks and nalbound fragments distributed by the EEF in 1914-15.
Note: At the time of the excavations, the socks were presumed to be knitted as the differences between the crossed knitting and cross-knit nalbinding techniques had not yet been described.
So if you happen to see this sock (#4 above), please let me know via Contact.
I will blog about the other three socks in future posts.
Antinoë, also known as Antinoopolis, is located along the Nile near modern day El-Shaikh Ebada.
Please note: This is the story of the journey to examine the Tarim beret. The substantive details of the examination will be published in an appropriate venue, but the journey itself was an interesting adventure. It is quite an epic.
This story begins in 1999 in a small town in Western Washington State and it took me across the Pacific Ocean and across much of Asia, alone, to look at an ~3000 year old hat. It was the kind of journey which apparently was just not done and yet; stories are born.
My quest to learn more about nalbinding throughout the world led to me to a then recently published book: The Mummies of Ürümchi by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. In it she describes the beautifully preserved textiles that had been found on and with the mummies of the Tarim Basin and her trip to Ürümchi in 1995 to study them. Quite early on, pgs. 32 & 33, she mentions the man with the ten hats. One of which has since become known as the Tarim hat, or beret. She describes it as having been “made of dark brown wool in a looped technique that at first glance looks like knitting. But knitting, so far as we know, was not invented for another two thousand years. This hat used a needle and thread method known by the Scandinavian name of nalbinding (“needle binding”).”
She included little line drawings showing the side view of the shape,
the top view showing the ribbed pattern in quadrants, and a little
diagram showing a round start of five stitches with a partial second row
demonstrating two Z-cross-knit variant wales and a two course deep
increase. The only other nalbound hat mentioned as such, on pg. 60, is
from Tomb 4. “The tomb also contained a dark red onion dome hat (like that in fig. 2.7) done in spiral nalbinding …”
This of course peaked my curiosity. What did the hat look like? How was it made exactly? That little diagram and sketch were certainly not enough to know how it worked. Fortunately, that year she was out promoting her new book and had a speaking engagement nearby, for relative terms of near involving over a hundred miles. I, unfortunately, could not attend. However, I knew people that could and they were sent with express instructions to report back any information she might provide. During the Q&A session, they did ask her about the nalbound hats, but they reported back that she said unfortunately, while she knew enough about the technique to identify it, she did not know enough about nalbinding to be able to convey the specifics of its construction. And thus the hats remained a mystery.
1999 was an exciting year for me as I will describe in a later post. Suffice it to say, that summer I found myself heading to Taiwan to continue my Chinese Mandarin studies for a year. Much nalbinding research was accomplished (the Academia Sinica is an amazing library). However, the hats of the Tarim basin were still a mystery and as I was so close, and unlikely to be so again, I decided in the summer of 2000 to travel to the Mainland to see them for myself.
I flew to Hong Kong and crossed my fingers that I would be able to get a visa. My plane was set to return home a month later and I could not afford to stay in Hong Kong for the whole time. I had no set itinerary, just a few places I wanted to explore and the desire to see the Tarim hats in Ürümchi on the far side of China. It was while I was waiting in Hong Kong that I got my first glance at an image of the Tarim beret. J. P. Mallory and Victor Mair’s book, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West, had just been published and there, on page 214, was an image of the beret. I could see the quadrants and ribbing. The stitch was not clear in the image, but it did not appear to be the cross-knit nalbinding variant.
I figured I would take the train as I had loved taking the train as a child and it would let me see the scenery. What I had forgotten was that riding in a moving, vibrating, vehicle has put me to sleep since I was a baby. I got more sleep on that vacation that I have before or since given the on average 35 hour stretches between places I went to explore. Turns out the Chinese are very polite and will pretend you do not exist until they find out you can “talk,” by which they mean speak Chinese. Nine months in Taiwan had increased my speaking ability to where I was quite comfortable carrying on a conversation so I had plenty of companionship along the way. The Chinese also do not travel alone. It’s just not done. So once they figured out I could talk, I tended to get adopted.
The train took me up from Hong Kong to Beijing where I spent several lovely days exploring with a Swede I’d met on the train. From Beijing I traveled to Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia province in China. I took a tour where they did come through on their promise of an English speaking guide, but as I understood it the first time (and better) in the Chinese, I chose not to subject us to a repeat of the information. I got to ride a pony across the grasslands, climb the dunes of the Gobi desert* and ride a bactrian camel. From there I went to Lanzhou and was convinced to visit Xining by someone that saw me spinning on the train. In Xining I got to see a towering pile of raw cashmere several stories high. I was introduced to the various colors and to a fiber I’d not run into before from yaks; which are quite tasty by the way.
From there I headed to Ürümchi. I arrived shortly after 7 in the morning on the 14th of June and after getting lost trying to find a recommended restaurant that was not where it was supposed to be, I made my way to the 新疆自治区博物馆, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum, generally referred to as the “Xinjiang Museum” for short. By the time I went to see them in 2000, the mummies were in their then new gallery alluded to in Barber’s book. Though it appears that it was shortly after my visit that the old building was torn down and replaced with the modern building in which the Xinjiang Museum is now housed. The mummies were in separate cases in the middle of a large room. There were large display cases in the walls. The beret was the third item from the left in the long wall case. Negotiations, which progressed much more smoothly in Chinese than English, were made for me to return one week later to examine the Tarim beret. I then took the evening train to Kashgar; planning to return Ürümchi on the morning of the 21st.
My mother, meanwhile, was very curious as to if her experiments matched the hat. I wrote a quick email to the nalbinding list responding to her request on June 16th from an internet cafe in Kashgar. I mentioned that I was hot and dusty, but happy and excited. There wasn’t any air conditioning in the hard bed train carriages and the metal absorbed the heat. We opened the windows for air, but that let in the dust of the Tarim basin. I described that while I could not see well enough through the glass to determine the exact stitch, it clearly was not cross-knit nalbinding. “The light was too dim and it was too far from the glass for me to make out clearly what it was, just that it wasn’t any of my theories exactly.”
It had been a long hard train ride back from Kashgar, I had gotten severely dehydrated and slept 17 hours straight. I arrived to discover they had not yet pulled the beret from the display, so I got to watch them collect it. It turns out the only entrance to the case was a door on the far right wall. Remembering that the beret was third in from the left wall, I watched them carefully step over the items on display to collect the hat. Then, because there was not room to turn around while holding the hat, I watched him carefully step backwards over the displayed items all the way back to the far end of the display case.
They then placed it on a table covered with newsprint for me to examine. I counted the stitches in the beginning row, examined the increase and pattern structure, noted the strategy to decrease towards the underside, and marveled at the beautiful braided edge inherent in the felt roll that supports its shape. While the technical details recorded will be published later, the structure was not cross-knit nalbinding as had been implied by Barber’s diagrams and the quartered and striped drawing. Instead, it is made of patterned simple looping, sometimes called blanket or buttonhole stitch, with judicious use of spacing between stitches to make the striped pattern. The increasing strategy does mean that there are a few single stitches per row that connect to the previous in a manner to make a single wale of cross-knit nalbinding at each quarter’s edge, but this is a secondary effect, not the primary construction structure.
I also took notes on three other hats, though they were not removed from their cases for examination. The most notable was referred to as the “witch’s hat” given it’s beret-like base and stuffed point displayed on the skull upon which it was found. The base was covered in a fabric made of loop & twist and the point was covered in a fabric made up of loop & twist and blanket stitch bands. I left Ürümchi that same night taking the train to Xi’an. I did not have internet access until the 26th, at which point I sent a preliminary report to the nalbinding email group list.
After visiting the clay warriors, it was time to make the hurried run back to Taiwan. I took a plane to Shenzhen. Then a ferry across to Hong Kong in order to catch my plane. Three currencies in one day as I was running on my last pennies. I spent three days in Taiwan packing up my stuff and then started the journey home.
* The dunes we climbed rose right up off the river’s edge. Our group decided to avoid the crowds, so we were climbing in fresh undisturbed sand that had been baking in the sun all day. I got about two thirds up the dune and couldn’t go any further because my fingers and toes had swollen so much from the heat retained in the top layer of sand. I had to have someone go before me so that I could climb in the slightly cooler layer that their passage stirred up. There is a reason that people wear wool socks in hot sandy areas and it does have to do with insulation.
For more recent information on the Tarim finds & updates to the Annotated Bibliography:
Claßen-Büttner, Ulrike. Nadelbinden – Was ist denn das? Geschichte und Technik einer fast vergessenen Handarbeit. Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH, 2012. ISBN 978-3-8482-0124-2.
Nargi, Lela. Knitting Around the World: A Multistranded History of a Time-Honored Tradition. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2011.
Xin, Xiaoyu. “Research on Prehistoric Hats in Xinjiang (2000 BC-200 BC)” Asian Social Science Vol. 11, No. 7. Canadian Center of Science and Education 2015. ISSN 1911-2017 E-ISSN 1911-2025. http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/ass.v11n7p333 Accessed June 3, 2019. Note: The article refers to these hats as “knitted” which is not the only evidence of translation issues from Chinese to English.
This last year has been a very exciting one as I work to track down all known examples of nalbinding (simple and compound) found in Egypt and surrounding regions. (Preliminary results were presented in January.) Primarily these have been dated art historically to the Coptic Era with some earlier and some later dates, generally covering much of the 1st millennium. Radio carbon dating has tended to bring the dating of these finds earlier than the art historical datings, moving many of them into the Roman and Late Antiquity Eras.
Many of these finds I have known of for decades and thus am simply collating and analyzing data I have already collected. But as I am searching for more recently published data and images, I have had the repeated giddy fortune to run across finds I did not know about previously. Sometimes they are old finds that have been hiding in their museums for over a century or obscure publications that are now finally easier to track down (a shout out to my friends that send me articles; you know who you are). Occasionally, the finds are from relatively recent (within the last 30 years or so) excavations. Sometimes it is simply an image that I then have to track down where it is currently located and if there are any publications. Other times it is a reference in a publication leaving me to track down images to assist with my comparative analysis.
Today, it is an image (embedded below). Conveniently posted within a nice article that provides information regarding the institutions involved with the excavation. Most importantly, it notes that while the “Child’s Sock” was found amongst rubble, the stratigraphy led to well-dated layers resulting in a dating from the Greco-Roman Period of 2nd century BCE. Thus leading to the added excitement of potentially corroborating the carbon dating of another cross-knit nalbound sock that fell unexpectedly into the first few centuries before the Common Era.
So if you heard a random giddy squeal of joy today, it might have been me. A new to me sock, complete with image and dating. A new city for the map of finds. Potential corroboration of the dating of another sock. These are the things that make me bounce with glee. Now to actually dig further and find more information.
De Moor, Antoine, Cäcilia Fluck, M. Van Strydonck, and M. Boudin. “Radiocarbon dating of Late Roman woolen socks from Egypt,” In Textiles, tools and techniques of the 1st millennium AD from Egypt and neighbouring countries. Proceedings of the 8th conference of the research group ‘Textiles from the Nile Valley,’ Antwerp, 4-6 October 2013, edited by Antoine De Moor, Cäcilia Fluck, and Petra Linscheid, p. 131-136. Tielt: Lannoo Publishers, 2015.
On Monday, May 20th, 2019, I was honored to be allowed to examine the cross-knit nalbound fragments found in Dura-Europos, Syria and now housed in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery as inventory numbers 1933.483 & 1935.556.
The fragments are dated to pre-256 CE as that is when Dura-Europos was sacked and never re-occupied. As described in Yale’s online catalog, they are both of wool, though the ribbed fragments are of a finer gauge than the patterned fragment. The patterned fragment is currently a kind of beige with some possible staining. The ribbed fragments are also currently primarily beige, but with stripes of red, yellowish tan, blue & purple, and hints of green. Inv. # 1935.556 is actually composed of two separate fragments. They are stored unfixed to their backing boards in glassine wrapping to protect them from the light.
Time will be needed to process the data collected, analyze it, and prepare it for publication in appropriate venues. However, early indications are that there is likely evidence that will tie these examples even closer to the broader Roman Egyptian corpus.
I would like to extend my warmest thanks and appreciation to Dr. Lisa Brody, Associate Curator of Ancient Art at the Yale University Art Gallery for her assistance and gracious hospitality giving me the opportunity to examine these exceptional fragments in their collection.
Additional sources that discuss the Dura-Europos finds: (to be updated)
Rutt, Richard. A History of Hand Knitting. London: B T Batsford Ltd, 1987 ISBN 0713451181; reprinted Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1989 ISBN 0-934026-35-1, Library of Congress Catalog Number 87-46353; pgs. 28-30.
Pfister, Rudolf and Bellinger, Louisa. "The textiles: Knitting," Rostovtzeff, M.I., et al. The excavations at Dura-Europos Final Report IV, Part II. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945, 54-5.
The most famous of the Dura-Europos fragments is the beautifully stitch patterned cross-knit nalbound fragment, Inv. No. 1933.483, in the Yale University Art Gallery, showing a opposing leaf pattern bordered by repeats of a pomegranate like shape. Its original function is unknown, but the conservation efforts made the three remaining integral lacing loops visible. (Update 1/7/2020: The patterned fragment has evidence that confirms what remains is that of the heel cup/ankle shaft of a sock.)
The particular fragment pictured above initially caught my eye back in the late 1990’s. I had gotten my first copy of Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting. The chart he included for a knitted simulation did not match the image of the actual object provided on page 30 with the precision that I desired. I spent many many hours pouring over that image and charting out stitch by stitch the nalbinding pattern the year I was in Taiwan (1999/2000). I also spent a good bit of time consolidating a list of references to track down and discovered that the Academia Sinica library had an amazing Humanities and Ethnography collection. This collection included a copy of R. Pfister and Louisa Bellinger’s 1945 article on the “knitting” in The excavations at Dura-Europos Final Report IV, Part II which included a black and white image that was clearly post cleaning/conservation.
My class handout I initially created in 2000 included not only diagrams of the possible increases and decreases and my chart for the specific pattern found in Inv. N0. 1933.483, it also included my initial attempts at using the images of the Dura-Europos fragment to illustrate the specific increases and decreases used in extant Roman Era cross-knit nalbinding. It continues to be a favorite piece for this purpose as it includes so many examples thereof in the formation of its stitch patterning.
In 2004, I was honored to present “Nalbinding or Not?: Some Structural Differences between Nalbinding and other Textile Techniques” at a DISTAFF session during the 39th International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The patterned Dura-Europos piece proved to be an excellent example for demonstrating what cross-knit nalbound increases and decreases looked like in an actual object and how they differed from the corresponding shaping of a knitted object.
Here is a copy of the handout from my presentation.
The cross-knit looping structure can be produced by two different techniques, either cross-knit nalbinding or crossed/twisted knitting. They both produce a fabric of the same basic structure. However, they are worked in opposite directions. The clues as to which technique produced the fabric are in the shaping (increases/decreases), pick-ups, and mistakes. The preferred spiral working direction also differs between the two.
More information regarding the stitch patterned fragment, Inv. N0. 1933.483, along with a downloadable full size image is available on the Yale University Art Gallery’s site. The record for the two “ribbed” fragments, Inv. No. 1935.556, that were also found at Dura-Europos is available here. The electronic records were created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect their current knowledge about the objects, thus they are still listed as having been knitted.
The Yale University Art Gallery also has a permanent exhibition on the Dura-Europos excavations and as part of that has a very nice online feature outlining the historical background and excavation history with images and maps of the excavation: http://media.artgallery.yale.edu/duraeuropos/
I would like to thank the Yale University Art Gallery for providing such excellent photos in their online collections. I am also very much looking forward to, and very grateful for, the opportunity to view the fragments in person later this month. They continue to play a pivotal role in the study of the nalbinding technique and the structures it produces.
As part of my project to track down and study nalbound textiles, I occasionally run across items that have been photographed, but I do not know their current location. As I mentioned in my presentation earlier this year, sometimes, you just need a little help.
Have you seen this sock? If so, please reach out and let me know where it is currently.
The sock is described as being cream with red and blue stripes. It was part of Theodor Graf’s collection. While it was said to be dated to Late Antiquity (4th – 6th cent.), no specific find location within Egypt was identified.
I have several others that I am also trying to locate. Those will be posted separately.
The myriad of theoretically possible stitches in nalbinding can be quite exciting. Nonetheless it is very important to exhibit caution, especially when “finding” new stitches in the wild. A solid understanding of all looped structures is necessary to avoid accidental and injudicious co-opting of the natural structures of other looping* and knotting techniques. Not all end-led structures are nalbound structures.
Over time, I will be addressing the issues surrounding properly and clearly defining nalbinding (doing so by what it is instead of what it is not). I will also show how surface structure can both assist with and obscure identification of technique. Additionally, how to spot those higher level construction structures which help differentiate the specific technique used to create a particular base structure. This means that there will be an amount of not directly nalbinding related posts as we explore other looped textiles enough to get an understanding of how exactly they differ from nalbinding. As we’ve noted throughout the study of nalbinding, it is easy for objects to be miss-classified as an entirely different technique and structure by those that are insufficiently familiar with the possibilities available within the family of non-woven looped textiles.
For example, Cary Karp has pointed out in his blog, in the post Crochetedness vs. nalboundness, how incorrectly co-opting slip stitch crochet structures into the nalbinding atlas of stitch variants has obscured and made difficult the study of that technique’s history and transmission. Given that nalbinding has long suffered under this same issue of miss-classification/identification obscuring its history, it behooves us to exhibit caution to avoid doing the same to our looping cousins.
* While all loop-led structures can technically be produced via end-led means, those means may not be at all practical or reasonable.
It’s a great video. One minor note I’d like to add. The term “Tarim stitch” is a misnomer as cross-knit nalbinding is not found as a primary construction stitch in the Tarim Basin finds. I discussed this in my January presentation and will be blogging about my summer of 2000 trip to see the Tarim hats in a later post. Cross-knit nalbinding examples show up on multiple continents, with the Andean region being particularly prolific. The oldest example of the cross-knit looping structure is a fragment found with some of our earliest textiles in the Nehal Hemar cave.
On January 21st, 2019, I was honored to give a presentation entitled Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile (click on title to view recording: 30 minutes) at the Textile Archaeology of Egypt and Sudan’s (TAES) seminar on “Current Research in Textile Archaeology along the Nile” at the Centre for Textile Research in Copenhagen. They recorded the presentations and posted them online. A direct link to mine is located here. This presentation focused on the over 110 extant nalbound artifacts, primarily socks, that have been found in Romano-Coptic Egypt and surrounding areas. They are now located in museums throughout the world.
This presentation was intended to be an introduction to the breadth of information that can be gleaned from examining the corpus as a whole: the diversity of nalbinding variants, the colors and shapes of the objects, their shaping and construction, the find locations up and down the Nile, along the Eastern desert and in the Western Oases, etc.
Abstract: Extant Romano-Coptic nalbinding from the Nile Valley and surrounding regions provides one of the most statistically significant populations of such material, consisting of over 100 specimens. The technical variant used in approximately half the objects is misleadingly called Coptic or Tarim stitch. A preferred established term is cross-knit looping and personal examination of the Tarim basin finds has not revealed its presence there. The misnomer derives from the misinterpretation of a brief note in a broader work, compounded by unawareness of the variant’s oldest known occurrence from the Nahal Hemar cave. The term Coptic stitch reflects a greater understanding of naming conventions for nalbinding variants. However, recent research indicates that multiple finds labeled as Coptic actually date to the Roman and Late Roman Eras. The nominal association with the Coptic Era is additionally misleading because half of the designated corpus displays a range of more complex variants. This paper addresses the terminological imprecision, confusion about underlying fabric structures, and effects of provenance irregularities. It also presents an initial collation of available images and mapped locations of the Egyptian finds as part of a comprehensive catalog of nalbound objects prior to 1600 currently being compiled.
This post was specifically to collate posts regarding the presentation. However, I plan to write up a bit of my experiences leading up to the deciding to do the presentation and the preparation therefore in a future post. I also want to write up one on the trip surrounding the seminar and presentation as I was lucky enough to arrange several visits with museums to see extant items in their collections (reports on which will be forthcoming in their appropriate venues).